Nothing says Art Institute of Chicago like black scarves and leather boots. So when my friends and I met for coffee over the weekend dressed the same, we decided to finish up our cappuccinos, hop the Blue Line and head downtown for a little look-see at the Contemporary Post-Modern Impressionistic Minimally Symbolic galleries in the art institute’s new modern wing.
There’s something about gallery going that brings out the intellectual pretense in all of us, and frankly it’s part of the fun. “I love the hue in that piece,” one friend said. “It gives the whole piece a somber unity, almost like I’m there with them…at the crusades.”
“This series is so great, very playful and true,” said the other. “That’s what’s great about it, guys: The truth.”
“I don’t know,” I added. “Does an indoor phone booth really count as an installation piece?”
We giggled and gazed, faux critiques tumbling off our lips, all the way to a room where Jackson Pollock’s giant painting “Greyed Rainbow” loomed over the gallery. As we entered, we were followed by group of Danish tourists, cameras blazing. The room guard in the corner, who appeared to be sleeping standing up, was suddenly mobile. She approached the group and sternly asked them to tuck away the cameras.
“I hate when the guards yell at you. It feels like a teacher,” my friend whispered. “Let’s keep moving.” My friends moved on, but I held back hoping to catch another glance at the Pollock. I stood for a moment, basking in the deconstruction, then I noticed someone to my right: a cute early-30’s art dude with scruffy cheeks, a winter coat and hobo gloves.
My cheeks heated up. I stood very still pretending not to notice him, but glimpsed him reaching into his messenger bag with one fingerless glove and digging around for something.
Suddenly I heard a loud guffaw behind me. I turned to see one of the Dutchmen smiling and holding the camera high above the struggling guard’s head. “Whoa, rude.” I thought. “You’re pushing it.” But nobody wanted to intercede. We all chose to ignore him and go back to looking at the art.
As I turned back to the Pollock, I saw a flash of white in the lower right corner, and a brush covered in white paint attached to a fingerless glove dart back out of the frame and into my new friend’s messenger bag.
Did…did he just…
I looked around to see if anyone else witnessed the act. The guard had regained control of the room and was slowly moving back to her post, clearly irritated. The Dutch headed to the next room, not all that happy themselves. And the scruffy dude? In the superlative words of Beyoncé, “like a ghost, he was gone.”
And I was left with a million questions. Had this piece of art just been wrongfully attacked by an amateur? Who should I tell? I mean I hadn’t actually seen anything. Was it all a practical joke? Were the Dutchmen a diversion? Was I an accomplice? Did the guy think I was cute? Did he do it just to make an alluring, criminal entrance into my life? Did I just ask myself that?
I stepped closer to the painting looking to see if something was out of place. Is that even possible on a Pollock? If I touch it, will the guard come running over to bust me? I was frozen. Lost in thought.
My pocket began to vibrate. Was that justice calling? Suddenly the clear notes of Celine Dion’s “I Drove All Night” rang loudly from my phone. Then I felt three hard taps on my back.
The guard was standing right behind me, pissed off again. “No cell phones allowed. Please turn off or silence it.” She stood, hands on her hips, waiting. Turn off, or silence.
“Sorry,” I mumbled.
I jammed the phone back in my pocket and headed for the next room where my friends were waiting in front of the Miró. I silently joined them. Maybe I should have told someone. Maybe I should have followed him out, tackled him down, called the cops, and exposed him as the painting perpetrator he was. But I didn’t. And here’s why.
We examine art under the assumption that every stroke is deliberate, that every flick expresses the exact story the artist wanted to tell. But what makes one story more important than another? If caught, the scruffy dude would have been severely condemned as an amoral artist and person, but Pollock was no saint either. He was, in fact, a notorious philander and overall jerk.
So maybe the dude’s artistic expression, a single white line among thousands, could be just as valuable as the entire piece itself. Because who’s to say what makes art good or not. Me?
Taking photos with a flash, talking on a cell phone or defacing a major work of art: Two out of three are not allowed at the art institute. The third remains a Modern Wing mystery.